England had seen an extended summer in 1976. The Oval was parched, with no cloud cover, the pitch was a batting paradise. The great Viv Richards had scored an imperious 291 with West Indians declaring at 687 for 8. Holding's feet hardly touched the ground as he ran in. He moved in silkily and his body swayed like the cobra's. He was bowling with only one fielder in front of the wicket. He bowled and I moved back and across. I saw the ball pitched up, so I moved forward and then into the shot, before I knew the ball had smashed into my pad. The pain was so incredible that I thought I had been shot. This is how Bob Woolmer recalled his encounter with Michael Holding. Holding took an amazing 14 for 149 on a pitch that had nothing for assistance. He just bowled faster and faster.
That was the era of famous Fast bowlers. The West Indian pace quartet, amazing Aussie duo of Lilliee and Thompson, celebrated all-rounders Kapil Dev, Imran Khan, Ian Botham and Richard Hadlee. Curtly Ambrose, Courtney Walsh, Ian Bishop, Pattrick Patterson, Craig McDermott, Waqar Younis, Wasim Akram, Devon Malcom Allan Donald, Shaun Pollock, Glenn McGrath took forward the mantle and made life of batsmen miserable all over the world for years.
The last decade has seen the demise of quality fast bowlers, bowlers who can just blast batsmen out their presence with sheer pace. Shoaib Akhtar, Brett Lee, Andrew Flintoff and Shane Bond can be exceptions rather than rule. Also the latest breed has been marred with injuries all through. There can be several arguments to why the number as well as quality of fast bowlers has gone down considerably. The quality of pitches has declined with more inclination towards batting, the boundaries have been brought in to accommodate more spectators, the protective gear that batsmen decorate with, all these can be a few pointers. The rules have also been mended in favour of batsmen. The restrictions on the bouncers, power plays, 30 yard circles, also add to the woes of already shrinking tribe of fast bowlers.
With the decline in the quality of fast bowling, the level of batsmanship in terms of quality has also gone down though run machines are on a rise. Batsmen with poor batting techniques are making merry. The advent of T20 means batsmen with heavy bats on placid tracks can plant their foot forward and hit through the line and score tonnes of runs.
No doubt one enjoys to see runs being scored, boundaries being hit but the balance between bat and ball is also important. Who can forget Gundappa Vishwanath's amazing display of batsmanship at Chepauk where he single handedly tore into the West Indies pace attack led by hostile Andy Roberts. Those who have seen that innings swear by the display of artistry shown by the little man. Even to this day, when subjected to some fast stuff, these poorly equipped batsmen start hiding behind the walls. Yes the reference here is to Rahul Dravid who was recalled into the squad when India toured South Africe after their humilation in the T20 world cup, where some of their batsmen were found wanting against bouncing ball.
Many of modern great batsmen like Mathew Hayden, Saurav Ganguly, Virender Sehwag, Michael Bevan, Vinod Kambli etc have had their woes against quality fast bowling. Mathew Hayden did not get going at all against Curtly Ambrose and Courtney Walsh and then Shane Bond towards later part of his career. Vinod Kambli's career got off to a flying start but then was cut down bluntly when he was exposed to bouncing ball. Jimmy Adams from West Indies met the same fate.Michael Bevan never made it big in test cricket for his nemesis against fast bowling.
Overall the quality of fast bowling has gone down and so has the batsmanship. For cricket to be competitive, balance must be maintained between ball and bat. Fast bowlers are real ornaments of the game of cricket. Arrival of new breed of fast bowlers like Mohd Aamer, Wayne Parnell, Kemar Roach, Ishant Sharma, Jerome Taylor, Lasith Malinga, Fiedel Edwards, Shaun Tait augurs well, but only question is can they cope up with the changing world and work load of Test, One-day and T20 plus the lucrative leagues like IPL. Fingers crossed.